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County tax worries suburban library officials

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A panel studying the future of libraries has become too focused on the possibility of a tax to help fund suburban libraries, some officials believe.

Northland Public Library officials are concerned the County-City Library Service Panel sees the tax as the only solution to funding woes, Northland spokeswoman Santina Balestreire said. An example cited in talks is the 0.25 mill tax that Pittsburgh voters approved for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in 2011, she said.

“We want there to be more than just this outcome. We would like to discuss ways that we can operate the library system more efficiently,” Balestreire said.

Buhl Foundation President Frederick W. Thieman, who chairs the panel, denied that members are focusing on a library tax. Others on the panel are current and former Allegheny County Library Association members and Carnegie Library board members.

“First, the library tax isn't even on the table, and we are focused on how the system can operate most effectively and efficiently in the 21st century,” he said.

There is concern that a county-wide tax would result in less money for some libraries, said Cynthia Richey, director of Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

“I think that a county tax might replace” funding from the Regional Asset District, she said. “It might replace local funding, but we don't know that. One of the problems with trying to predict the future is that the future is elusive.”

RAD, which supports libraries, parks, civic facilities and cultural programs through half of the proceeds of a 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County, will give $28.6 million to county libraries this year, but $19.5 million of that will go to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

If a financial analysis indicates that more revenue is needed, the panel might recommend a host of funding sources that could include a tax, Thieman said.

The 45 independent libraries in Allegheny County spend about $55 million a year to operate, but more than half of that is spent by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Though library usage and costs continue to increase, state funding for libraries has dropped 30 percent in the last 10 years and it is expected to remain flat for the next five years, said Marilyn Jenkins, executive director of the library association, whose members are the Carnegie system and 44 libraries outside the city.

Based in McCandless, Northland receives 60 percent of its funding from five municipalities, including Marshall.

At a Marshall supervisors meeting Monday, Manager Neil McFadden said Marshall contributes about $120,000 to Northland annually.

Board Vice Chairman Philip Troy said he had concerns about a county-wide library tax not being fairly distributed.

The panel is to produce a report for the library association's and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's boards of directors, with suggestions about improving efficiencies and providing better services, at the end of this month.

“It's always good to talk about how to do it better. And maybe nothing at the end of the day needs to change, but if we don't talk about it, we don't know,” said Mary Frances Cooper, president and director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

The county's 45 library systems share some services, such as centralized technology support, but the panel also will look at other services that could be shared such as financial reporting and human resources support, Jenkins said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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